Are Girls Princesses or Honorary Boys?

First, a couple disclaimers:

One, I have not seen Brave or any of the new Snow White features as of the time of this writing. I intend to see Brave this weekend, but we’ll have to see what this weekend brings.

Two, as a future parent, I’m not disturbed by the Disney Princesses as they appear in film. They all represent a young woman who is trying to figure out who she is based on who she wants to be OR she is raised not knowing she’s a princess at all. What I am disturbed about is the marketing of the Princesses that seems to communicate the glamour of being a princess, overlooking the journey to princess that these characters take.

So, in light of the release of Brave and the popularity of The Hunger Games, there has been a bunch of discussion going around about female heroes again. This is a particularly troublesome character. In order to follow the hero’s journey, as we know it from Joseph Campbell, she has to do particularly un-feminine things, such as shoot arrows and take no interest in dresses or boys. But in so doing, she is essentially being an “honorary boy,” as Roger Ebert described Merida of Brave. While this is all well and good, it still places these female heroes on a fundamentally male path, and communicates to girls that they have to be “honorary boys” if they want to succeed in their quest. Even the recent incarnations of Snow White show her becoming a Joan of Arc-type of militant vigilante against the evil queen. Again, becoming an “honorary boy.” In this category, Katniss from The Hunger Games stands out because she is not trying to exert any kind of independence, per se. She feels the call to duty upon her father’s death to become the breadwinner for the family. She chooses to become a hunter because she’s not yet old enough to work, and the decisions she makes throughout her adventure are in the name of protecting her family as best as she can. I’ll get back to this point in a moment.

But the contrast to this “honorary boy” character is the princess model. As I mentioned above, the Disney princesses as they are portrayed in the films are not what’s problematic about them. Sure, they seem to come across complacent and passive, but to stop the analysis here misses the point of many of these princesses. There are three types of these princesses:

  1. There are those who know they are princesses, and seek to find their own course in life. These are characters such as Ariel, Pocahontas, and Mulan.
  2. There are those who are princesses, but don’t know it because something happened to their parents when they were children and they were raised in a different life. These princesses have an unspoken quest to reclaim their princesshood. Examples include Snow White, Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), and Rapunzel.
  3. And there are those who are not princesses at all, but catch the eye of the prince. By staying true to their own personalities, they are elevated to the level of princesshood. There are several examples in this category, including Cinderella, Tiana, and Belle.

Each princess is asked in the course of her journey to sacrifice something she holds dear in order to complete her quest. This something is ultimately returned at the end of the story. This sacrifice is necessary. Without it, the princess remains tied to the life she knows and loves, like a security blanket. She’s told that she cannot move forward without this sacrifice. In the male hero journey, there’s a sacrifice of home in order to go on a quest. But in the female version of the story, the journey itself is not a necessary component of her mission. It’s the willingness to sacrifice something that starts her quest. If she is launched on a literal journey, she must fulfill her mission without this one item that she identifies with, thus forcing her to dig deep into herself and bring up a part that would likely have remained hidden forever otherwise.

So why does Katniss stand out? Katniss breaks the mold of the girl hero trope. She’s motivated only by her role as protector and breadwinner. She is otherwise a completely ambiguous character. She is neither princess, nor “honorary boy.” She just is. And because the trilogy is told in the first person, we are given a glimpse into her struggle between how she perceives herself and how everyone else expects her to behave. And (small spoiler here) as she caters more and more to the social norm, the less and less grip she has on herself. (end spoiler) See my previous post for further comments about Katniss.

I know a couple of people who are taking on the challenge of identifying just what the female hero’s journey is, because it’s clearly not the same one as the male hero journey. Campbell’s model can still apply, but it gets tricky when you apply this model to a female hero who is not an “honorary boy.” As an example, while one could analyze the journey of Eliza Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice using Campbell’s model, it does feel forced, as though we are trying to fit the puzzle piece into the wrong spot. I’ve long suspected that the female hero’s journey is one of rooting as opposed to one of questing for a boon. Establishing a home. When she’s younger, no girl is thinking along these lines. She is thinking about how quickly she can leave home and become her own woman. Somewhere along the way, however, building her own home becomes important. Perhaps it’s a portable home, or maybe it’s a permanent home. Perhaps it involves are partner and/or children, or perhaps not. Those are secondary elements to the feeling of “planting roots.” Looking through many of the female heroes who have over time influenced our conceptions of women, rooting is the end goal. But finding those heroes in a world filled with “honorary boys” is a challenge.

The Hunger Games

I read the first book of the trilogy back in 2010, mostly as an exercise to find out what the hype was all about, but also to prepare myself for writing my dissertation. Sometimes some good fiction is a nice mental cleanse. I thoroughly loved the first book: the dystopia of Panem mirroring the dystopia of America, a nod to Theseus and his own Hunger Games as he took down the Minotaur (Peeta even played the Ariadne role), and a level of writing that was neither too young adult nor too adult that kept the book flowing with some openings for the imagination. Here’s the catch: the book felt so complete, as though Collins hadn’t yet secured the contract for the entire trilogy, that I didn’t feel compelled to hurry up and finish it.

So then I got a Kindle as a self-graduation present after defending my dissertation. This itself is insignificant, hut I was motivated by the Prime users lending library to read the remaining two books. Catching Fire was hands-down brilliant.

**Begin Spoiler-ish. Skip ahead if you don’t want to be spoiled-ish.**

The idea of a second Hunger Games, the growing discontent in the districts, Katniss’ own teenage rebellion all helped make this an engaging read. This book helps take the plot away from Katniss’ own struggles with taking care of her family in a poor district and puts the struggle into all of Panem, which is the foundation for Mockingjay. This last book is heavy and written with the tone of “let the adults handle the politics. You just do what you’re told.” It does get whiny, because Katniss gets whiny about having to be someone’s pawn (she had enough of that in the Games, thank you very much). She also gets progressively more injured, mentally and physically, which takes her further and further away from the frontlines. In the end, she rebels and almost all of those closest to her dies. Then she chooses her lover and lives happily ever after. Yep, just like that.

**End Spoiler-ish**

I was okay, tolerant, of Mockingjay right up until the epilogue. I admit, it’s nice having the happy ending secured for Katniss, but honestly it felt a little forced, the way the Harry Potter epilogue felt forced. I feel that epilogues of this sort take the duty of explaining too much to the reader, as though we’re not smart enough to imagine a happy ending for a character we’ve come to know intimately over the course of this epic adventure. A friend wrote about this phenomenon of Authorial Intrusion. Rather than include this epilogue, why not just leave that story for fan fiction or the author’s blog or tour? As we know from Rowling and the Potter fandom, anything the author says in passing becomes canon. Why not leave it there?

Epilogue aside, the trilogy follows what I call–for a lack of better terminology–the Star Wars structure: the first is complete and can stand on its own while simultaneously setting up the rest of the trilogy, the second is dark and perfect, and the third brings the trilogy to an end perhaps a little too anticlimatically.

Young adult fiction has taken a very dystopian tone as of late, but what makes The Hunger Games stand apart is that it’s really not a savior hero story. Katniss only thinks she’s the hero–it’s her story after all–especially after she consciously agrees to that roll. But she’s not Harry Potter. She’s not a Chosen One. Compared to other YA heroes, there’s not much that’s special about Katniss Everdeen. She is an accidental celebrity. No magic powers are bestowed on her. She’s not a Campbellian hero either. She does come back from the underworld with her boon, but never does anything with it. Not even breathing an air of freedom. She just does what she always does: survive.

The Rise of Dark Fairy Tales

It is probably no surprise to the passive reader of this blog (all two of you) that I am a fairy tale enthusiast. It’s a topic I keep returning to time and time again, and it’s a topic that provides hours of academic muddling for this mythologist. That’s what scholars such as the Jungians find so fascinating about fairy tales. In their simplicity, they speak archetypally, deeply, meaningfully… They can become whatever story the reader or listener wants them to be.

And it’s probably no surprise to the passive reader of this blog (all two of you) that I am also a Disney fan, and that Disney’s versions of fairy tales are hands-down my favorites. Why, you might ask? This is a complicated answer, and one that I don’t have lying around, but part of the answer lies in the fact that Disney’s retelling of these stories captures that magic that attracts readers to them in the first place while also translating the stories to a new medium. There’s something that Disney “gets” in its storytelling that makes these stories speak to the culture. Sure, perhaps 200 years from now, Disney’s fairy tales will be shelved along with Grimm’s as future readers try to find the next new gripping version of a tale that’s already been told 1000 times.

Finally, it’s probably no surprise to the passive reader of this blog (all two of you) that I am also a lover of the Disney parks, notably Disneyland since that’s the only one I’ve visited with any capacity to build memories. The parks do for the experience what the films do for the fairy tales. They capture the magic that attracted us to them in the first place. I’ve been to Universal Studios, Six Flags, and my childhood theme park, Eliches (or however it was spelled). But Disney keeps me coming back time and again because of the experience. I trust the rides to not kill me (even with those few scary stories of accidents); I trust the park to be clean and safe; and I trust that, even if I’m tired, sore, and cranky, that the day in the park will still make me very happy.

I am a product of the Disney mythos.

So here’s my point. My love for all three of the above things are combined in the book series Kingdom Keepers by Ridley Pearson, also known for his adult thrillers and his work on Peter and the Starcatchers. The Kingdom Keepers are a group of teenagers hired by Disney to be the models for DHIs, or Digital Host Interactive, digital tour guides through the parks at Walt Disney World. What these kids don’t know is that they have also been recruited to help the Imagineers fight against the Overtakers, who are Disney villans who come alive when the park closes at night. Villains such as Maleficent, Pirates, and Crash Test Dummies. The other Disney characters come alive as well, but they are powerless by themselves to stop the Overtakers from fulfilling their goal of overtaking the park. So the teens at night, when the fall asleep, become the DHIs, and spend their nights in constant battle against the Overtakers, receiving missions from the Imagineers, and trying very hard not to be caught in Sleeping Beauty Syndrome, which occurs when the DHI is prevented from crossing back over at the end of the night and the human teen is locked in a mysterious coma-like sleep.

These books capture the essences of the park and Disney magic and are thrilling for anyone who is either a fan who knows the parks intimately, enjoys a good sci-fi thriller, or even dreams of going to the park one day.

The most recent installment of the series, Shell Game, begins the process of moving the DHIs and the Overtakers to California from Florida by way of the new cruise ship. Having never been on a cruise, let alone a Disney cruise, I was a little skeptical about reading this book. But, of course, I enjoyed it thoroughly (having read half of it on the airplane to and from my dissertation defense). And, of course, in typical Disney fashion, find myself really wanting to take a Disney cruise now to share in the experience.

But that’s still not my point. In one particularly potent scene, the leader of the DHIs, Finn, confronts Maleficent, who is believed to be the leader of the Overtaker operation (though no one is certain about that). Finn and the other DHIs are in an auditorium doing a presentation for the cruise guests when they are besieged by pirates (of the Caribbean). Maleficent appears on the monitors and makes a rather bold statement:

 “Behold the New Order,” Maleficent said in her eerily calm and grating voice. “The dawning of a new age. [. . .] Enough of all this prince-and-princess spun-sugar nonsense. It’s time for the Grimm in the fairy tales to express itself. The woods are dark, my dears. The beasts within them will eat you for supper, not sing you a song. Wake up and smell the roses.” (484)

Remember up above when I said that Disney “gets it?” There is something happening in fairy tales right now, a sort of paradigm shift. In 2010 Disney claimed they were no longer going to make fairy tale animated features. At the same time several, albeit bad, fairy tale features were released by other studios. In 2011, Disney gave us Once Upon a Time. It’s as though the songs of the princesses in the forests have lost their magic for us. And it’s no wonder, given all of the darkness surrounding us as a culture. We are hungry for the magic; we are hungry for the good hero to defeat the dark evil bad person. But we are also hungry for the darkness to become a part of us, because it already is.

There is a shroud of darkness on American culture today, and it is spreading into other parts of the world. Perhaps this is because of the prevalence of our cultural exchanges, or perhaps this is a darkness that has been trying to take over (the Overtakers) for decades (think Great Depression, atomic bomb, and Cold War), but the American optimism has always kept it at bay. That optimism has taken a vacation, it seems. Even Disney, who always gave us a message of hope and happiness in our darkest hour is putting forth messages that this is the time of monsters (KK) or that the fairy tales have forgotten who they are (OUAT).

Meanwhile, fairy tales are being retold with a vigor that we haven’t seen in a while. New Grimm texts were found. Movies retell the stories. Vampires, werewolves, and zombies are everywhere and literally eating us (though occasionally, they may sing us a song to lure us in their charms).

It’s difficult to describe the change that is happening while being in the middle of it happening. Hindsight is always 20/20, but At-the-moment-sight is typically blind. We’re still looking to the past, expecting it to have all of the answers. Oh but wait, you’ll notice we’re looking at the 1950s for those answers. Just because television and the movies painting the decade as Pleasantville, the decade was anything but. Darkness perpetuating darkness.

We haven’t learned anything from our previous encounters with Darkness in the past, which is why it is still bothering us. Call it the shadow or whatever, but until we start communing with this Darkness and learning something from it, we’ll be on this endless cycle for a while yet.

Lessons we’re learning from today’s myths: 1. Believe in magic. 2. Remembering or finding your true identity or self is the first step toward dealing with the darkness. 3. Listen to your elders–you don’t know how much longer they’ll be around to advise you. 4. Don’t listen to your elders if you know they’re advising you poorly. 5. Saving good from evil has no room for EGO.

That said, I’m looking forward to the last two KK books. If the DHIs are successful in bringing down the Overtakers, perhaps we could stand to learn a thing or two from them?

The Perks of Being a Wallflower?

The trailer for The Perks of Being a Wallflower premiered last night during the MTV Movie Awards:

(Video taken from The Leaky Cauldron)

The idea behind this book is that the main character, Charlie, writes letters to this anonymous reader (presumably the book’s author) about the struggles of being a teenager who is neither sporty nor popular… a wallflower. He makes some friends who help him find himself, but then the book ends on a tragic note. And it’s this tragic note that made me rethink my opinion of the book. In that one moment, what was a wonderful book that I would give to a teenage to read suddenly turned into one of those sensationalist teenage novels in the category of Go Ask Alice. Perhaps I’m exaggerating to myself, but my ultimate point remains the same :

When I was a teenager, I found my solace in Anne Rice. I was attracted to the tone of her novels, which were both dark but possess a sort of Gothic optimism that I needed to read at the time. For this reason, I don’t begrudge teens for reading dark fiction. But I didn’t have Harry Potter as a teen. I was almost at the end of high school and the angsty teenage phase when Sorcerer’s Stone was released. I was more interested in reading the classics for my English classes than I was in current fiction.

Since Harry Potter, young adult and teen fiction took a new turn. The turn was already happening prior to Potter, but these books started to attract a number of adult readers and gained attention for the series. The darkness that only teens can identify began leaking to other demographics. Perhaps we knew that the 90s optimism was only a brief period of calm between the Cold War and whatever would come next.

I’m slowly getting tired of these dark novels dominating our culture. Vampires, zombies, teenage angst, Voldemort… There is little room for happiness, and it seems as though the entire culture has forgotten how to be happy. Messages of empowerment are lost among the popularity of these teenage tales. So rather than write some new, hopeful fiction, we have superheroes we hope will save us. But why aren’t we saving ourselves?

Teens should go through that underworld journey in order to grow, but in our country’s phobia about aging, are we forgetting how to leave the underworld as adults? Or are we just Orpheuses who made the mistake of turning around?